Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Righteous Mind has been visiting UBC the past few days, and he stopped by at the National Core for Neuroethics to discuss a variety of issues in which we have a common interest. While he was here, he was kind enough to sit with me and have a conversation about groupish genes, the response to his upcoming appearance on the Colbert Report, and current events.
The current issue of the European Journal of Risk Regulation has the proceedings of a symposium on nudging, and it contains a set of insightful papers. The introduction by the editor says it best.
The EJRR starts the new year by hosting a pioneering symposium devoted to one of the latest policy innovations that is currently experimented in the United Kingdom and the United States: the ubiquitous, yet controversial, Nudge. This idea originates from the homonymous, 2008 best-selling book published by the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein. By building upon the findings of behavioural research, they refute the classic economic assumption that “each of us thinks and chooses unfailingly well”1 and they advocate the need for public authorities to nudge people to make decisions that serve their own long-term interests without however removing their right to choose.
At a time in which governments are taking considerable interest in the use of nudging, we have asked some of the leading authors who have already contributed to the literature surrounding the regulatory innovations, generally referred as New Governance, to share their ideas on this appealing regulatory approach.
In his opening essay, Nudging Healthy Lifestyles, Adam Burgess provides a critical assessment of the introduction of behavioural, nudging approaches to correct lifestyle behaviours in the UK. His thought-provoking analysis triggered a lively debate that has been framed along the subsequent essays signed by On Amir and Orly Lobel, Evan Selinger and Kyle Powys White, Alberto Alemanno and Luc Bovens.
The article by Alberto Alemanno, Managing Editor of the European Journal of Risk Regulation is a fulsome account of the propriety of nudging in the case of tobacco control (recently highlighted by Roland on these pages); that nudging in this instance overcomes many of the objections that are raised in the other contributions to the symposium.
I also liked Selinger & White’s analysis of nudging in the context of Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz’s insight on the three levels by which we should view technological fixes (as articulated in their excellent book The Techno-Human Condition, which I have written about before). In particular, they point out the naiveté of only considering shop-floor arguments, a topic we will return to again.
Hat tip to Marleen Eijkholt for alerting me to this symposium.
Image credit: Transcapitalist
As the technology of memorializing dialogue (in stone, no less) came into vogue, Socrates famously admonished Phaedrus
his protegé Plato on its dangers: if people are able to write everything down, their ability to remember what was said will diminish. Plato, being an early version of an early adopter, memorialized the debate, and that is why the apocryphal story is with us today. But even without a grounding in modern neurobiology, Socrates had a valid point: the plasticity of our brains are such that the less we use them for a given function, the more our ability to carry out that function is impaired.
This becomes a tricky issue when thinking about the world in which we live today. In a thoughtful essay over at The Atlantic, Evan Selinger reviews a number of arguments for and against the use of ‘apps’ to make us, as he puts it in his title, a better person. What Evan is particularly concerned with are digital willpower enhancements: the suite of technologies that have been developed to help us do everything from not being distracted by a tweet to refrain from eating more than we would like. Continue reading
In an essay in recent issue of Current Biology, a team of neuroscientists and philosophers examine the neuroethics of transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), a relatively inexpensive means of modifying human brain activity that is touted as potentially being at the forefront of a new wave of cognitive enhancement. The article has garnered a great deal of interest in the press (for example here and here and here), and the reasons are unsurprising: the prospect of a device that is cheap (probably), safe (maybe), and effective (time will tell) is something akin to the holy grail of cognitive enhancement. If the initial claims for TDCS hold up, the device may have an impact the practice of enhancement in the relatively near term. As a result, the urgency with which our community must think through the relevant ethical issues intensifies. Continue reading
The Education and Training theme of The Canadian Dementia Knowledge Translation Network (CDKTN) project at UBC is seeking Visiting Scholars whose interests lie at the intersection of dementia and knowledge translation. The program funds 2-6 month fellowships for investigators, academic faculty and clinicians to conduct research, deliver other scholarly products such as case reviews and books, or produce innovative multimedia materials in dementia or knowledge translation research in Canada. This is an outstanding opportunity to participate in world class research in dementia KT and interact with high calibre scholars at the Neuroethics Core & the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders.
Applicants for these competitive fellowships must hold an MD and/or PhD degree. Scholars selected for the Vancouver-based program will receive both travel support and a monthly stipend. Openings are currently available and applications will be reviewed upon receipt.
To apply, please submit a short statement describing your interest in the scholarship and proposed project, a cover letter and CV c/o Janice Matautia: email@example.com
There has been raucous furor over the decision of Kathleen Sibelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, to overrule the FDA’s approval of the drug known as Plan B One-Step as an over-the-counter drug. It has never previously transpired that the FDA has been overruled on a matter that falls under its jurisdiction such as this, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued a carefully worded response which, given that Sibelius is her boss, was remarkable for its forthrightness: Continue reading
The Center for a New American Dream has just posted a great video by Tim Kasser entitled The High Price of Materialism. In the video, Tim points out the myriad ways in which consumer culture degrades the quality of our lives. Worth noticing are the myriad neuroethical issues that he raises, from the effects of advertising upon our brains to the education that we provide to our children.
For a list of references on the subject, visit here
Personhood is in the news. Mississippi is considering a ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as having personhood. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial on the matter, and the arguments were all framed in consequentialist terms:
“Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.”
“It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.”
It is a certainty that there would be consequences to such legislation, but what is interesting is that all of the parties involved in the debate skirt the fundamental issue: what do we mean by personhood anyway? Continue reading
The New York Times had done it again. You would have thought that they had learned their lesson after publishing a rather poorly designed study using fMRI to wax poetic on the various candidates in the 2008 presidential election on the op-ed page; a subsequent letter to the editor signed by 17 experts in brain imaging not only debunked the findings, but added that “the results reported in the article were apparently not peer-reviewed, nor was sufficient detail provided to evaluate the conclusions.” Blog posts galore (here and here and here) and online magazines (here and here) heaped on the scorn, with more than one commentator noting that the op-ed piece seemed more like a thinly veiled advertisement for the private company involved than proper investigation.
But did they learn? Apparently not.
In today’s New York Times, Martin Lindstrom has a high-profile op-ed piece in which he concludes that the relationship between individuals and their iPhones is more like love than it is like addiction. The conclusion may or may not be true, but the methods he uses to arrive at that conclusion – fMRI experiments with 8 men and 8 women, conducted by a neuromarketing firm – are no more robust or thoughtfully examined than the above-cited Iacobini et al. flim-flam that the New York Times previously published on politics. Mr. Lindstrom, who touts himself as both consumer advocate and branding guru but appears to have no academic credentials to warrant his interpretations of fMRI experiments.
Is nobody home at the New York Times?
Update: Tal Yarkoni has a detailed and thoughtful critique up about the Lindstrom article